The Poisons in your Purse

Pets are always curious as to what’s in your purse or backpack

Published: September 22, 2014


You may be a walking hazard to your pets, depending on what you carry in your purse, backpack, or violin case. Pets are always curious as to what’s in your bags, which smell so much like the person they adore, and sifting through the contents for something interesting to eat is a fun game for them.

The aftermath of that game might not be quite as much fun.

Most pet owners are aware of the common poisonous stuff we carry around – medications, chocolate – but not everyone is. Plus, sometimes we just toss something in our bag and forget it’s there (“Where the heck did I put my bug dope?”).

One gargantuan problem is not knowing that something you buy is toxic to pets, even if it’s fine for your basic human. Ignorance is definitely not bliss with the sugar substitute xylitol. It is used in many brands of chewing gum, breath mints, and candies. Ingestion causes a nasty decrease in blood sugar in dogs, often to the point of hypoglycemia, and, in some cases, it jogs on the down the road to liver failure. It’s great for human diabetics because it does not alter insulin or glucose levels in humans. We have no information on whether it alters insulin or glucose in cats, but it’s bad stuff for dogs.

One day a couple of years ago I found an empty gum package on the floor, which that morning had contained half the pack. I didn’t see which of my two dogs got into it, so after contacting my personal ER vet, our own Dr. Tony Johnson, I gave hydrogen peroxide to both dogs. They tossed their cookies, but I stupidly did not separate them so I didn’t know which dog puked out the wrappers. (Just weeks before that day, the VIN News Service published my article. about the lack of awareness of xylitol. Seriously.)  When I called the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline to find out how much xylitol that particular Mentos gum has ― the flavor can make a difference in the xylitol content ― the woman mentioned that many pets of Poison Control Center employees had dogs who had gotten into xylitol; talk about people who should know better! It happens. In my case, I was grateful that I just had to take them to the clinic several times over the next few days for blood tests to make sure their livers hadn't transmogrified into pudding, and they didn’t need a week of hospitalization and glucose monitoring, as do the bad cases. It was easier on them, plus it was way, way cheaper on my end. Nonetheless, I felt deep guilt and a bite in my wallet.

Sometimes there are new hazards that we haven’t heard of yet. Lots of folks who are trying to quit smoking walk around with electronic cigarettes, which use liquid nicotine. Consumers buy liquid nicotine in cartridges that contain up to 72 milligrams (mg) per milliliter (mL) of nicotine; many cartridges hold up to 1 mL. Doesn’t sound like much until you grasp just how toxic nicotine is, news that may come to you straight from the ER vet. So, 0.5 mg/lb (one half of one milligram per pound of body weight) is the minimum toxic dose at which we expect to start seeing adverse effects; even mild effects are very unpleasant, while 4 mg per pound is the lethal dose. For cats and small dogs, drinking a wee 20 mg of liquid nicotine can be lethal. If one dog yanks it from your purse and plays with it, and another pet joins the fun, you could have a double homicide complete with chalk outlines over vomit. CSI won’t have to run tests to figure out what happened.

As mentioned, the lethal dose, without cancer, is 4 mg per pound of weight. Thankfully, it tastes so incredibly awful that even your pets will think “Why does she enjoy this hideousness? She has terrible taste in everything but pets. Isn’t there some rabbit poop in here?” Still, some pets will muddle through the taste anyway (I’m not making fun of Labs. Not really). Cigars can contain up to 40 mg of nicotine, chewing tobacco carries 6 to 8 mg per gram, nicotine gum has 2 to 4 mg per piece, and nicotine patches have 8.3 to 114 mg. Yep, 114 mg could kill one 28.5 pound dog, a dog small enough to wear your backpack as a Halloween costume.

If you’re sneaking a flask around or having a party, remember that in pets the alcohol in adult beverages can cause all kinds of fun stuff from basic vomiting and diarrhea to metabolic disturbances to a flat-out coma. It’s not just hard alcohol that’s bad because even wine and beer can cause problems. You may never get to where you’re going, depending on how busy the ER is.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can contain up to 60-70% alcohol (that stuff is 120-150 proof!). Those are definitely a risk to pets even if small amounts are ingested. If you have one of these, keep it zipped up in a pocket or cosmetic bag. Better yet, look for an alcohol-free sanitizer or one with far less.

Got ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) in there? They take away aches and pains and help prevent an inflamed area from blowing up like a balloon. But in dogs and cats, they cause problems. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, called NSAIDs, are commonly taken from hither to yon in purses and backpacks, and can cause problems ranging from gastrointestinal difficulties to damaging the kidneys. NSAIDs are definitely no-nos, as are most other human drugs. A single tablet of acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be fatal to a cat and its ultrasensitive system – talk about finicky! - and larger amounts can lead to liver failure in dogs. Although aspirin can be used in some pets (first discuss doses and how often with your veterinarian), when dosed inappropriately, aspirin can cause serious illness in cats and dogs. All over-the-counter and prescription human medications have the potential to be toxic (as does an overdose of your pet’s medication), so if you need to carry such stuff as anti-anxiety medications, diabetes medications, or lithium, be anal retentive about where you store them in your bag. When it comes to medication and your pets, anal retentive is good: ignore all those slacker mellow types!

Even though antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benedryl) can be used in pets at the correct dosage, an overdose can kill pets. As it turns out, many antihistamine overdoses, including diphenhydramine, can be severe and difficult to treat. Antihistamines have narrow margins of safety, meaning the dose needed to see the desired clinical effect is just a wee bit away from the dose needed to see toxic effects. That is a narrow margin! Low doses of antihistamines usually cause sedation, although just as with people, there's always the pet who gets jittery on diphenhydramine, and on high doses they get agitated, anxious, hypertensive and can seizure. Even people can overdose on this stuff, and it's not pretty. 

Dogs and cats take Prozac. A low overdose usually causes sedation but higher doses can result in serotonin syndrome, really fun stuff like agitation, hyperthermia, tremors, and seizures.

Enrofloxacin, an antibiotic, has been associated with blindness when used in high doses in cats (no such problems in dogs). While there is no proven association with blindness from ciprofloxacin, the human counterpart to enroflaxacin, it's likely best to keep kitties separate from ciprofloxacin and other drugs in its class.

Assume the position that any medication is bad for your pets, but prescription meds and NSAIDs in particular are most likely dangerous. Call your veterinarian or a pet poison control center if the four-legged beast gets into anything: child-proof bottles are not pet-proof. Children don’t sink fangs into a cookie jar (hopefully they don’t, because if they do, you have some significant trouble on your hands).

It should go without saying that any street drugs – cocaine, crack, heroin, crystal meth – are really toxic to pets, but let’s cover all the bases here. They’re referred to as recreational, but for pets this stuff is a direct run to the ER. Cocaine, crack and methamphetamine can rapidly cause seizures and death if ingested by pets, while heroin or legally prescribed opioids such as oxycodone can cause severe coma and death due to respiratory failure. “Hello, ER? I have no idea where he got the meth. Walter White must have come by.”

Yeah, weed’s toxic too. It doesn’t matter if it’s high-grade medical marijuana or stuff your neighbor grew on the electric utility’s property. What’s even worse is weed baked in a brownie made with baking chocolate.

An albuterol inhaler, typically used to treat asthma and bronchitis, is wonderful: breathing is an underrated pleasure. However, if Spot decides to chew on it and punctures the metal container with a fang or two, he can get a bomb-like exposure instantly. Most of the liquid blasts out violently, just as though you were wildly shaking a can of soda and then immediately opened it: kaboom! That’s bad news since most inhalers have about 200 or so doses when full; three or four doses over the course of one day make my hands shake. This source of life-saving safety for many asthmatics can cause all manner of life-threatening ailments for pets. If your pet chomps through an inhaler and gets a blast of albuterol, particularly a full one, get thee to a vet AASAP (absolutely as soon as possible). Don’t bother calling first to ask if this is something that needs to be seen; rather, while you are en route call them to say you’re coming in. Remember to breathe and don’t let the panic about your pet give you an asthma attack unless you have another inhaler, or you both may end up in the ER.

Carry any chocolate or boxes of raisins for snacks? Even though some of us feel that life is not worth living without chocolate, or we need raisins for some daily regularity (I’m not saying that’s me in either situation. I’m also not saying it’s not me. I just mention it for your knowledge base). Those snacks can be poisonous for pets.

One of my dogs, 17-pound Fred, ingested more chocolate over his life than was imaginable; once he unzipped a visitor’s suitcase and ate half of the pound box of Frango mints they’d brought for me. Thankfully for my couch, it was the best smelling vomit of all time, more minty than vomity. Because he either ate enough to vomit on his own or I gave him hydrogen peroxide immediately, he never had to go to the ER, even though I phoned them regularly and had his dose of hydrogen peroxide affixed to the refrigerator door. Once he pooped out bite-size chocolate wrappers for days. He ate almost an entire bottle of acidophilus capsules and didn’t have diarrhea; ditto for a bunch of red jaw breakers. He once broke into a Tupperware full of wheat flour and helped himself, and his beard turned into paper mache. He ate pre-measured bags of kibble for a visiting guide dog for the blind. Fred also ate a full disposable diaper that contained an absorbent gel that is apparently used to stop forest fires; that snack necessitated a call to Poison Control in which the woman who answered burst out laughing. Clearly, that was not the first time she’d been asked that question. I’m still not sure how or why he never needed medical attention, but he went through a lot of hydrogen peroxide.

Other toxic items that you might carry with you include:

  • Zinc pennies (minted after 1982) or other galvanized metals such as nuts and bolts
  • Sunscreen or diaper rash ointment containing zinc
  • Mosquito repellant containing DEET
  • Homemade Play Dough (salt poisoning)
  • Iron supplements
  • Chocolate-covered coffee beans
  • Macadamia nuts

Detox is an expensive, tear-worthy procedure best used for alcoholics, junkies, and celebrities. Be safe and keep whatever could harm your pets zipped up inside your handbag or backpack pocket, a cosmetic bag, or even better, in a pet-proof container.

Also, so you don’t utterly freak out one day - as I am prone to do - remember that the inherent danger of an exposure is all about dose. As they say, dose makes the poison: six prenatal iron pills are going to have a different effect on a Maltese than on a Great Dane. For one thing, the Great Dane might just drool some out.

Nonetheless, if your pet gets into something and you’re concerned, call your vet, a local ER, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, or the Pet Poison Helpline. Better safe than sorry. Stuff happens, and some dogs open zippers and some drag things out of handbags and backpacks. Just take care of it AASAP.

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